Harvard University's "Veritas" shield is seen on a gate on Feb. 17, 2024. (PErica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Harvard says it will no longer take stances on many issues, eight months after stoking tensions with Israel-Gaza statements

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Harvard says it will no longer take stances on many issues, eight months after stoking tensions with Israel-Gaza statements

Harvard University's "Veritas" shield is seen on a gate on Feb. 17, 2024. (PErica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(JTA) — Harvard University will no longer issue statements on topics that are not directly relevant to its operations, on the advice of a task force convened amid tensions around the Israel-Hamas war.

The Institutional Voice Working Group, formed last month to examine questions around when and how the school should weigh in on controversial and political issues, recommended the new policy in its first report, issued Tuesday. University leaders immediately said they accepted the recommendations.

“Harvard isn’t a government. It shouldn’t have a foreign policy or a domestic policy,” Noah Feldman, a law professor and author of a recent book about contemporary Judaism who co-chairs the group, said in a university Q&A published after the decision was announced.

Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, formed the working group after taking over at the Ivy League university following the resignation in January of Claudine Gay, who faced a plagiarism scandal ignited by controversy over her handling of Israel protests on campus and her remarks at an explosive congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. The group formed in April, the same month students launched a pro-Palestinian encampment on Harvard’s campus.

Unlike at some schools, the controversy at Harvard did not begin with the university’s statements about the war. Instead, the administration faced criticism because it did not issue a statement for days after a coalition of student groups blamed Israel for Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack. When the university did issue a statement expressing “heartbreak” over the attack and the ensuing war, it also drew criticism, with Democratic U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Jewish Harvard graduate, denouncing the statement as “word salad approved by committee.”

Such a statement would not be issued under the new policy. The working group concluded that because statements expressing care can leave some feeling alienated, “the most compassionate course of action is therefore not to issue official statements of empathy.”

Harvard is not the first school to adopt such a policy: In 1967, the University of Chicago famously issued a declaration saying a university “cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” But Harvard’s new policy represents a rebuttal of contemporary trends, in which corporations, universities and other institutions face pressure to weigh in on political and global issues — often igniting backlash as they do so.

The working group consulted more than 1,000 members of the Harvard community before forming its recommendations, according to its announcement about its report. It concluded that the school’s credibility is compromised by statements that do not reflect expertise and that issuing statements on some topics means that school leaders “will inevitably come under intense pressure to do so from multiple, competing sides on nearly every imaginable issue of the day.”

Because it is unlikely that any statement will satisfy all members of the school’s community equally, issuing statements can “undermine the inclusivity of the university community,” the group concluded. “It may make it more difficult for some members of the community to express their views when they differ from the university’s official position.”

The school can and should comment on issues directly related to its mission and operations, the report says, before adding, “The university and its leaders should not, however, issue official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function.” When there is a disagreement about whether an issue is appropriate for the university to comment on, it should refrain from issuing a statement, the group advised.

The group did not mention the current Israel-Hamas war explicitly in its report, but it did acknowledge the potential for student groups and others to ignite controversy with their own statements — and offered guidance about how to handle such an instance in the future.

“Individuals within the university, exercising their academic freedom, sometimes make statements that occasion strong disagreement,” the report says. “When this happens, the university should clarify that they do not speak for the university and that no one is authorized to speak on behalf of the university except the university’s leadership.”

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